Immigrant-rights protesters confronted President Obama on Monday, interrupting his speech in San Francisco and demanding he use executive authority to halt all deportations, but he rebuked them and told them he doesn’t have that kind of power.
The confrontation is the latest sign of growing tension between Mr. Obama and some on his political left who say he can do more to push the issue of immigration, even as he argues that the roadblock is actually Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Hours before Mr. Obama’s immigration speech, protesters chained themselves to the gates of a detention center for illegal immigrants in Adelanto, Calif., to call attention to deportations and what the activists said is inhumane treatment of those awaiting removal from the country.
“You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country,” a man, identified by news reports as Ju Hong, shouted from the stage directly behind Mr. Obama, then helped lead a chant of “Stop deportation!” that was taken up by others in the crowd.
“Actually, I don’t, and that’s why we are here,” Mr. Obama replied.
As action on immigration has stalled in Congress, Mr. Obama and activists are increasingly at odds over the question of how much authority he does have.
Mr. Obama raised expectations with his broad policy last year of granting tentative legal status to young illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children and call themselves “dreamers.” Under Mr. Obama’s policy they have been granted work permits and authorization to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
Earlier this month, the administration also announced a policy allowing illegal immigrant relatives of U.S. troops and veterans to apply for “parole in place,” which would also exempt them from being removed from the country.
The activists say those moves show Mr. Obama has authority to stop deportations for most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Not so, the president counters.
“If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing the laws in Congress then I would do so. But we’re also a nation of laws, that’s part of our tradition,” he said. “The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. What I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve.”
Security personnel were about to remove the protesters from the event, but Mr. Obama stopped them.
“These guys don’t need to go. Let me finish. No, no, he can stay there,” the president said, drawing cheers from the audience for his act.
Mr. Obama has said his decision to stop deporting young illegal immigrants was an exercise of “prosecutorial discretion.” It’s a power Mr. Obama has flexed repeatedly — including earlier this month when the White House said it wouldn’t enforce part of the new health care law’s requirements that make many existing health plans illegal.
But in the case of immigration, Mr. Obama has told interviewers that stopping all deportations would go beyond discretion and cross the line into ignoring the law.